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interview

Mr. Schmit goes to Europe – a beer with the Socialists’ lead candidate

The Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights and European Socialists’ lead candidate Nicolas Schmit and DG Fabio Mauri. In the background, the Brussels Canal.

“I’m thirty-four and I am exhausted”, said Robin, who has been following the seventy-year-old Commissioner and lead candidate Nicolas Schmit in his campaign. “Yesterday we were in Portugal, today we are in Belgium, tomorrow we will be in Luxembourg, then Italy, Spain and Croatia”. I am happy Schmit found some time in his busy agenda to answer a few questions and listen to my meme speech.

A young Nicolas Schmit. Or is it Steve McQueen?

It’s quite easy to connect with him, you see he is used to meet and talk to people. His voice did not improve since the Eurovision Debate but it’s stable at least. We share the same music taste (“Leonard Cohen is the best”), I suppose this makes me an honorary boomer. His favorite actor is the anti-hero Steve McQueen (1930 – 1980), though he admits nobody ever called him “The King of Cool”.

As a child, what was your family like?
My mum was a housewife and I will never thank her enough for pushing me to study. My father was a steel worker; our town, Differdange, was nicknamed the Iron City of Luxembourg, because of the many steel factories that were built there since the end of the 19th century.

Did you inherit any practical skills from your father?
Not really. My wife always says I’m not able to repair anything at home.

Did you have any student job in your youth?
Yes, I worked for a few months for a company that built heating systems. I had to transport blocks of metal to the room where a colleague was building the burners. And it was in summer, over thirty degrees and it was exhausting. I did all this because I was eighteen and I wanted to buy a car.

A Citroën 2CV, Schmit’s first car

Ah, the incentive of capitalism! Which model was the car?
A 2CV, it was in 1971, a long time ago.

Did you enter politics in that period?
A year earlier, I joined the Socialist Party when I was seventeen, against my mother’s desire, she was really against that. But at that time young people were all leftists and I was too, though I always rejected radicalism. That’s probably why I entered diplomacy in 1982.

“In my days young people were all leftists and I was too, though I always rejected radicalism”

In the same period your children were born. Did being a father of four help you developing your diplomatic skills?
Let’s say I used my diplomatic skills to deal with my children.

The classic meme-picture

What was the most significant event of your diplomatic career?
Helping negotiating and drafting part of the Maastricht Treaty [signed in 1992, it’s the founding treaty of the European Union, the one that introduced the single currency and improved the EU decision-making procedures, ed]. Of course, I am not proud of all the chapters in the Treaty, but I was just a young diplomat back then.

Your involvement continued in the years to come?
Yes, I took part in all the treaties that followed, I was also a member of the European Convention that wrote the Constitutional Treaty [signed in 2004, it was rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005 and replaced by the Treaty of Lisbon, ed]

The European Constitution, which was voted down by the people… Too ambitious or not enough ambitious?
Not so ambitious.

I helped drafting the Maastricht Treaty. I am not proud of all its chapters, but I was just a young diplomat back then

“There’s a risk that this might happen”

In your long career you witnessed many social and political events. How did the people’s perception of the European Union change over the years?
I was lucky enough to have lived the years of Delors as a diplomat. Back then we were enthusiastic about Europe and the direction it was taking. Delors was supportive of the internal market and economic integration but he also wanted to add a strong social dimension. Later things changed and I think that’s when people started losing the enthusiasm…

Talking about Treaties, where do you find the motivation to run as spitzenkandidat, knowing that in the end the Council might propose any random name?
It’s not about getting the EU top job, it’s about delivering a message. For me what matters is to have the opportunity and the honor to propose and discuss my vision of Europe.

Delors was supportive of the internal market and economic integration but he also wanted to add a strong social dimension

For the third time in a row the socialists picked a white man (before Schmit, Schulz and Timmermans, ed), how can I say, not in his prime, for lead candidate. Is this a good strategy for a political group that is supposed to fight for diversity and gender-equality?
If there had been a woman willing to take this position, we would have chosen her. Equality means that everybody has the same opportunity, but deciding to face a specific task is a personal choice. Yes, I am an old, white man, but I am also strongly committed to diversity and gender equality, that has been a big part of my campaign.

Practicing the raised fist (it’s done with the left hand).

Would you say that the uncertainty of the reward and the difficulty of the task made it easier for you to be nominated spitzenkandidat?
I said: “At my age I don’t want to fight for this position, because normally I should be retired, as my wife would like. If there is another candidate, you can choose them”. At that time, several names were being floated, but in the end the party chose me.

It’s not a secret that Schmit’s face is not the most known. So the young socialists toured Germany asking people to recognize the person depicted in the mask. You could win a beer with the right answer.

Would you say that’s because nobody really wanted that burden?
I would say lead candidates are always appointed without much commotion. The only real fight to become spitzenkandidat happened in the EPP ten years ago, Juncker Vs. Barnier.

Being a spitzenkandidat is not about getting the EU top job, it’s about delivering a message, a certain vision of Europe

Were you happy with this nomination or do you live it as a last service to the cause?
I was happy to be chosen and being supported unanimously. They didn’t think I was too old or too Luxemburgisch.

Is your nationality really a problem?
Well, many people say that there are too many Luxembourgers in EU politics…

In these last months you visited many countries and met many people. Was there a particular moment when you felt that the EU is too far from the people?
Some people might not know how the EU functions or how things are going but they do have expectations and disappointments. And for me this is what really matters, I have to take into account the expectations and reduce the disappointments.

“Born to be wild”. Spot the Commissioner

Was there a particular event that made you understand the importance of the European Union?
My father’s father was killed the first day that Luxembourg was occupied by Nazi Germany; a bullet entered the kitchen and hit him. My father was sitting next to him, he was twelve. This tragic event lived with him until now that he is ninety-six; and it also affected my perception of the world. As a young man I thought if we had had Europe back then, my and many others’ grandfathers would still be alive. And that’s where, partly subconsciously, my engagement for Europe stemmed from.

How would you explain war to those generations that were lucky enough not to experience it?
I suppose this is something very hard to do. But now that history is repeating itself, we can observe what is happening at our doors. We have to start a serious and difficult debate: we can’t let Putin win in Ukraine or he will think he can win in the Baltics, in Poland or everywhere.


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interview

When Fabio met Uschi – Coffee & memes with Ursula von der Leyen

Commission President and EPP lead candidate Ursula von der Leyen and Director-General Fabio Mauri
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Pablo's Corner

Size matters: a brief history of the EU enlargement

Enlargement is the French term by which we indicate the increase of the number of countries that belong to the European Union. The biggest growth happened in 2004, when the EU moved from fifteen to twenty-five countries. This process lasted a few decades and reached its completion when Cyprus, Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia joined the EU on the 1st of May 2004, exactly twenty years ago. Twenty years of passion, hope, progress, complications, critics, love and some hate.

Let’s recap the most important steps:

Enlargement Days – celebration in the new EU countries
Copyright: European Commission Audiovisual Library

From communism to Communitism

The beginning of the Nineties saw the collapse of Communism in Europe: most countries that belonged to the Eastern Bloc and had strong dependencies on Soviet Russia wanted now to be part of the European Community. But forty years of communism created significant changes in the economy and in the society of the new candidate countries, with huge reforms to be implemented.

Central and Eastern Europe and the European Community.
Video copyright: European Communities, 1992

From 1990 onward, the EU started negotiating with the new countries to help the transformation towards liberal democracy and market economy. There were many association agreements that lead to many cooperation programmes.

One of them was PHARE (Lighthouse in Greek, but also ‘Poland and Hungary Assistance for Restructuring their Economies’ – the EU Acronyms Team never disappoints). This programme later included assistance to Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia, Bulgaria and Romania.

Phare: the EU assistance programme for Eastern Europe
Copyright: European Commission Audiovisual Portal

In the Copenhagen European Council of 1993, EU leaders spelt out the political and economic conditions to be met for acceding to the European Union, the so called ‘Copenhagen criteria’. And publicly invited all the former communist states to apply. And PHARE became a full pre-accession helper instrument.

Copenhagen European Council, 21-22/06/1993
Copyright: European Communities, 1993

A year later, during the Essen European Council, the EU countries set out a ‘pre-accession’ strategy in order to prepare the candidate countries for the adoption of the Community Acquis. And confirmed that twelve countries will be included in the process, the ten that joined in 2004 plus Bulgaria and Romania (that will join on the 1st of January 2007).

Family photo – Essen European Council 12/12/1994
Copyright: European Communities, 1994

The day the Council seemed more ambitious than the Commission

It was right before the signature of the Treaty of Amsterdam in 1997 when the Santer Commission submitted its opinion. It stated that only six countries (Cyprus, Czechia, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia) were eligible to join. And suggested to begin negotiations only with them.

The European Council did not follow the Commission proposal (surprise!) and include all twelve countries in the Enlargement process. Nevertheless, the negotiations only started with the six countries suggested by the Commission.

Still want to join?

The Commission started its requests by drawing up an inventory of the legislative texts that the future Member States would have to incorporate into their national law. It was around 20,000 legal acts. 80.000 pages of the Official Journal of the European Communities. Surprisingly enough, the candidate countries still wanted to join.

‘Easy to digest? Please, read also the fine prints’
Source: Karikatur von Burkhard Mohr – Europäische Parade
Copyright: Burkhard Mohr

The Nice European Council in the year 2000 speeded up the accession negotiations with the other four countries, plus Bulgaria and Romania. One of the objectives was to allow the new member states to participate in the 2004 European elections, so EU countries wanted negotiations to be completed by the end of 2002.

The Commission sent another report: Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Slovakia and Slovenia were ready. Only Bulgaria and Romania were not there yet. Negotiations with the ten candidate countries were completed at the Copenhagen European Council in 2002: the Treaty of Accession was formally signed on 16 April in Athens, at the foot of the Acropolis.

Signing ceremony of the accession treaty- 2004
Copyright: European Commission Audiovisual Library

The people of each new EU country had to ratify the decision of their governments with a referendum. These were the results, by decreasing support:

  • Slovakia: Yes 92.4% / No 6.2 %
  • Lithuania: Yes 89.9 % / No 10.1 %
  • Slovenia: Yes 89.7 % / No 10.3 %
  • Hungary: Yes 83.7 % / No 16.2 %
  • Poland: Yes 77.4 % / No 22.5 %
  • Czechia: Yes 77.3% / No 22.7 %
  • Estonia: Yes 67 % / No 33 %
  • Latvia: Yes 67% / No 32 %
  • Malta: Yes 53.6% / No 46.3%
Poland referendum results and atmosphere
Copyright: European Commission Audiovisual Library

A new Europe

The new Member States joined on the 1 May 2004. “A new Europe was born” as Anders Fogh Rasmussen, a former NATO Secretary General, said.

European Council of Copenhagen, 12-13 December 2002
Copyright: European Communities, 2002

For a while, there was happiness, so much happiness that even Viktor Orbán, now living in a permanent conflict with the EU, said things like: “Oil may come from the East, but Freedom always comes from the West”.

Then the 2008 economic crisis hit hard on the EU and the “men in black” changed everything (once more). But that’s a story for another day.

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Pablo's Corner

The history of the European Elections through their communication campaigns

The European Elections are not only one of the biggest democratic exercises in the world, they are also a huge communication campaign with the same goal since 1979: get people to vote.

Join us in a roller-coaster of nostalgia, pain and joy to discover the evolution of the Parliament efforts. 10 European elections, 10 communication campaigns, uncountable slogans and videos for you to enjoy.

1979 – Hope

TV ad first direct European elections – 1979.
Copyright: European Parliament

The first European and the first international elections in history, the one everybody expected with curiosity; the hopes were high with the “Community”. Everything was to be built in terms of communication.

People writing their future on the ballot with a giant pencil as the main character for the various videos and posters. Different slogans in different countries with ‘Your voice’ and ‘future’ being the most used terms, followed by ‘hope’, ‘build’. ‘choose’ and ‘together’.

As they still do today, the Commission and the Parliament teamed up to organize a massive information campaign tailored to each country… And there was funding for broadcast and media to inform about the elections.

The turnout was around 63%, the highest ever in the history of the EU elections. As they were the first elections, we dedicated a specific post to them.  

1984 – Europe, do you hear me?

Video for the European election 1984
Copyright: European Parliament
Poster for the European election 1984 in Germany: “Democracy brings us together: Europe”

The second elections saw an increase in the number of Parliament seats and a decrease in the turnout (61%), which kept falling in every election until 2014. The first far-right group also appeared (the European Right, made by the French National Front plus the Italian Social Movement) together with the Rainbow coalition (Green plus Regionalists). This was also the first EU elections for Greece and we see slogans about ‘voice’, ‘democracy’ and ‘unity’.

Special mention to the UK Office of the Parliament for launching a very British video called What are you voting for… supposedly to encourage people to go to the polls. Here an extract of this beauty:

‘What are you voting for?’ campaign.
Copyright: European Parliament

1989 – Alan’s Psychedelic Elections

If you were expecting some strident music and 3D/psychedelia elements because of the 90s being around the corner, you will not be disappointed.

Video for the European elections 1989
Copyright: European Parliament

The first EU Elections for Portugal and Spain (and the third victory in a row for the Socialists). The Mediterranean country even managed to get one of theirs as President of the EP, Enrique Barόn Crespo.

In this election we see more direct slogans, with the word ‘Election’ as the anchor for the campaign, though the approach of using several slogans rather than one remained. So “your voice” still appeared and it will remain the most repeated slogan in the EU campaigns.

1994 – Peace, vote and bash the EU from within

Many things happened since the last elections: the end of Communism in Europe, the Reunification of Germany, the dissolution of the Soviet Union, the Velvet Divorce in Czechoslovakia and the breakup of Yugoslavia. Austria, Finland and Sweden applied to join the EU, which just recently adopted, amid controversies, the Treaty of Maastricht.

The dove of peace started to appear as a symbol of the EU and as a symbol of the election campaign. But also ‘Your voice and ‘Vote!’ remained as slogans. An unanswered call: the turnout continued to drop.

Promotional video European elections 1994
Copyright: European Parliament

EPP and European Democrats merged in a single group looking to expand and win for once the EU elections (they did not). And a new group was founded: the Europe of Nations Group, the first Eurosceptic group in the Parliament, which lasted until 1996.

1999 – United in Boredom

Unity was the message. Europe as a whole, the mantra. The EU started to be perceived as a superpower in the world scene. And if you wanted to act as one, you needed to be united.

European elections 1999 video campaign
Copyright: European Parliament

The 1999 elections were held among fifteen EU countries this time. More seats, less votes and a change of power, with the EPP winning for the first time. They have won all European elections since then.

In this year, Sarkozy, Farage, Nick Clegg, Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Hollande were elected as MEPs, but the election campaign was so boring that the turnout fell below 50% for the first time. A change in the approach and communication was needed.

2004 – The new Europe

Following the EU enlargement, the European elections became the biggest transnational direct election in history. More than 340 million people were eligible to vote, the second largest electorate in the world after India.

It was all about voting for “the new Europe”.  

Video campaign European elections 2004
Copyright: European Parliament
José Manuel Barroso (under the statue) in Athens.
Copyright: European Communities 2009

According to the European Constitution, the Council would have to take into account the results of the elections when selecting the Commission President. And the Parliament would “elect”, rather than approve, the Council’s proposal. It was the parliamentary groups opportunity to express lead candidates but they didn’t, with the exception of the Greens. The Council in the end selected Durao Barroso from the political family that won the election.

Later on, the European Constitution was killed, making it clear to everyone that the “new Europe” was the same as the old Europe.

2009 – A new paradigm

Thirty years later, Europeans got to see another proper communication campaign for the elections. ‘It’s your choice’ was the main slogan and the messages focused on the importance of the decisions taken by the European Parliament at EU level… and how they affected the every day life of Europeans.

The first elections of our beloved Jaume Duch as spokesperson.

Europarl TV, 2009
Copyright: European Parliament

Under the innovative “There’s always time to vote” umbrella, the European Parliament released a series of videos that played with humor, surprise and fast-paced editing.

There’s always time to vote
Copyright: European Parliament

In this election, for the first time, the European Parliament reached out to celebrities to encourage people to vote. Don’t miss Luís Figo’s motivational speech.

Despite of all the efforts, the turnout dropped again, but the foundations for the future campaigns was established.

2014 – The Lead Candidates

The never ending “EU at risk” mantra was repeated so much that people started to believe it this time. also seeing the rise in left- and right-wing extremism. The EU was losing impact, support, and credibility, both on the political and communicative point of view. Some change was needed.

For the first (and only) time in history, candidates for President of the Commission, known as Spitzenkandidaten (lead candidates), were chosen in advance by their political groups. This was followed by discussions on the election programmes, live debates among candidates and proper political campaigns. Probably, the most engaging elections to date, at least that’s how it was felt in Brussels.

The EPP won again and Jean-Claude Juncker was nominated and then elected as Commission President. Only Viktor Orbán and David Cameron voted against him in the Council.

On the communication side, Social Media was used for the first time for EU political campaign. The main slogan was ‘Act. React. Impact’, a call to stop talking and start doing things, for the politicians, and to stop complaining and start participating, for the people.

The Parliament decided to put extra efforts and resources to reach out to young Europeans: using the hastagh #myfirsttime and the video ‘And then came a lot of sheep’ they tried to be innovative.

Juncker did the same, touring around Europe on a bus, and featuring on a video which is still funny to watch.

Juncker won, the first and only President of the European Commission elected directly by the people. He opened a Twitter account, though he never tweeted once himself. Still, he was the star of the Social Media show during the entire mandate.

2019 – The failure of the lead candidates

The EU always finds its way to disappoint you; no matter how much you love the project, there will always be a regulation, a directive, an acronym, a Commissioner, a Charles Michel… something, someone, that will disappoint you. In 2019, it was the Council.

During the elections, we thought we were actually listening, reading about and electing the President of the Commission. Brussels was overexcited to see two of their most beloved politicians, Frans Timmermans and Margrethe Vestager competing for the EU Top Job. The communication campaign was all about the impact of EU policies in our daily lives, the Parliament managed to involve youth associations all around Europe to engage and listen to young people. They also published a very cringe video, which made DG MEME so angry to produce a video in response:

Celebrities were also encouraging everyone to go to vote; it was the honeymoon of EU democracy. Under the This Time I am voting campaign, everyone seemed ready to go to the polls. The focus was on the EU project; the decision was on the European people; the headlines were about the candidates. And the turnout got up, something that our beloved national leaders cannot cope with. They must be the protagonist…

With the results in their hands, the Council met to decide. The EPP was the most voted group, but Weber, their lead candidate, was not very appreciated. In those hours, in the corridors, everything seemed clear: Timmermans had to be the chosen one. “Get ready to announce it”. So everything was ready…until the lead candidate model collapsed.

Ursula von der Leyen had been appointed, unanimously, by the Council. “Ursula who?” was the most heard sentence that day. Headlines and criticism all around, with the European Parliament saying they will only elect a lead candidate. Finally, with a bit of persuasion and with just nine votes above the threshold, Ursula von der Leyen became the first women elected President of the Commission.

2024 – Tenth Time Around

This year, it is ten times Europeans have been called to elect their common Parliament. The effort of the last years saw an increase in turnout and a bit of trust from the citizens. How do we destroy all that? By definitively burying the lead candidates process.

The communication campaign this year can be seen as a continuation of the good recipes implemented in the last two editions: a focus on the distribution channels, a tailored-made and localized message based on the age group, a powerful media coverage, and a continuous highlight of the impact of EU policies in the life of the many.

The 2024 video is not about Europe, is about democracy. It is a call to young voters to defend it. We will find out quite soon whether the call of this four minutes video will be answered.


“Your voice”, “make yourself heard”, “it is your chance”, “your decision” are still there, with a new component this time: never take democracy for granted.

From 6 to 9 June, in your country.

But let’s not forget that the EU is an everyday project.

The EU is being made every single day, with every decision your government takes at national level. With every proposal the Commission makes. With every declaration the Parliament publish. With every time the Council decides. And that the EU cannot be made against EU countries, but with them. It is and it will always be what the EU countries want it to be. And the EU countries will be, whatever its people decide it to be.

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interview

A Family between War and Peace – A conversation with Lithuanian Foreign Minister Gabrielius Landsbergis

Of the many politicians I follow online, no one communicates as clearly and effectively as the Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs (MFA) Gabrielius Landsbergis. I started following him with interest during the diplomatic tensions between Lithuania and China in 2021; the appreciation was mutual, as he also retweeted some of my memes; this fact particularly impressed my Lithuanian friends, even those that didn’t vote for his party: “He is cool, his whole family is cool”.

Reading more about him, I discovered the important role that the Landsbergis played in Lithuania history over the last centuries. And as I am a curious person, I decided to direct-message him and ask if he would agree to an interview. “Labas! That would be interesting, set it up with my advisor, she’s a fan of yours”. I thought this conversation could be interesting for DG MEME’s readers too, just as a reminder that the EU has a lot to offer, besides Macron, Von der Leyen and Sánchez.

DG Fabio Mauri, Eglė Šeputytė – Tarchanovė and Minister of Foreign Affairs Gabrielius Landsbergis
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interview

I’ve got you under my Schinas – A conversation on the European Way of Life

Interviewing Vice-President Margaritis Schinas, the Midday Matador, the Father-of-us-all DG COMMers, the EU’s favorite son… I didn’t think I could be up to the challenge, he is too good to let anything controversial slip. Nevertheless, after years of online interactions and memes, I gathered up my courage, contacted his communication advisor Vangelis Demiris and set up a meeting.

Director-General Fabio Mauri and Vice-President (VP) Margaritis Schinas, Commissioner for Promoting our European Way of Life
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EU narrative interview

EUmanitarian Aid – An Interview with Commissioner Lenarčič

“Sorry, I have to leave you, I have an interview with DG MEME”
UNICEF UNGA September 2022
© Tina Štrafela

It is with a certain apprehension that I follow the social media account of Janez Lenarčič, Commissioner for Crisis Management: I know that every time he tweets chances are there’s been a catastrophe somewhere in the world.

EU civil protection and humanitarian aid, which means responding to disasters and crises by coordinating assistance and funding, is one of the many EU responsibilities. It is particularly relevant in these days of climate emergencies and wars, so I was very pleased when the Commissioner agreed to an interview.

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EU narrative

EUROPOLITAN, the Sober Fashion Magazine

In this page we collect all the issues of EUROPOLITAN, the EU Bubble’s fictional fashion magazine which is published every year on Valentine’s Day. Special thanks to LM, AH, MT, RAS and RJ for helping the creative process.

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EU narrative interview

Quo Va(l)dis? A conversation with EVP Dombrovskis

Since I was a trainee at the Commission I was always intrigued by Valdis Dombrovskis: his institutional smiles, his precise statements, his lulling voice… One day my curiosity took over and I finally reached out to his team, asking for a short interview. They were so kind to accept and, to my surprise, I discovered that the curiosity was mutual, as EVP Dombrovskis also reads DG MEME.

From left to right, DG Fabio Mauri, communication adviser Vanessa Mock and EVP Valdis Dombrovskis
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Pablo's Corner

European elections 1979: the first massive EU communication campaign

Turning points in history often go unnoticed; but the European Community did not want this to happen to the first direct EU elections ever held, forty-four years ago.

The elections were set for 1979 (from 7 to 10 June) and the EU institutions had to set up their biggest communication campaign (to date). As many things in the EU, the success was debatable, but it was a first step. The first step to keep moving EU communication forward. Or at least not backward. Standing still is also fine, actually.